S. 13 originals. The key drafting occurred in Palm Beach overlooking the Atlantic, John F. Kennedy had won the narrowest of victories in the 1960 election and he wanted a crisp, memorable inaugural address. Domestic policy was cut along the way as Kennedy remarked to his speechwriter and counsel, Ted Sorensen. Let's drop out the domestic stuff all together. It's too long anyway. JFK believes brevity was key, noting, I don't want people to think I'm a windbag. They wouldn't.
Instantly stately cadences delivered with crisp urgency, his breath white. In the winter air, John F. Kennedy summoned a new generation to the hard work of democracy. And in so doing, JFK did something remarkable. He made public service glamorous, fashionable and central. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine will rest the final success or failure of our course since this country was founded. Each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty, the graves of young Americans who answered the call to service around the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man, tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself. Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, north and south, east and west that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind?
Will you join in that historic effort? I'm Jon Meacham, and this is it was said Episode 10. John F. Kennedy and the summons to service, let's remember, he barely won, he was perceived by many people to be young, to be untested, to be maybe not quite ready for prime time, even after his victory. One of the measures of greatness in the president is not just what bills he signs, but whether or not he or she contribute to the enlargement of America's vision of itself.
I remember feeling as if something truly momentous had happened. You know, the idea of a new generation taking over that these were young Americans who are now it was their turn in effect.
He'd begun his campaign almost exactly a year earlier on Thursday, January 14th, 1960.
Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts. Pride throws his hat in the presidential ring at a Washington press conference, speaking at a luncheon at the National Press Club in downtown Washington. Kennedy laid out his vision of the office he was seeking. He said the modern presidential campaign covers every issue in and out of the platform, from cranberries to creation. But the public is rarely alerted to a candidate's views about the central issue on which all the risks turn that central issue. And the point of my comments this noon is not the farm problem or defense or India.
It is the presidency itself.
The presidency is the most powerful office in the free world. Through its leadership can come a more vital life for all of our people, and it are handed the hopes of the globe around us a freedom and a more secure life.
To Kennedy's mind, the Oval Office was the vital center of action, the pivot on which all else, from party politics to foreign policy to culture itself, turned at the National Press Club, he said. In the decade that lies ahead in the challenging revolutionary 60s, the American presidency will demand more than ringing manifestos issued from the rear of battle. It will demand that the president place himself in the very thick of the fight, that he care passionately about the fate of the people he leads, that he be willing to serve them at the risk of incurring their momentary displeasure.
Senator Kennedy, if you don't win the presidential nomination, will you accept the vice presidency? I shall not in any condition be a candidate for vice president. If I fail in this endeavor, I shall return and serve in the United States Senate. His understanding of the office was rooted in that of Jackson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts men who considered the presidency to be the overarching element of American life and government, Kennedy said. Whatever the political affiliation of our next president, whatever his views may be on all the issues and problems that rush in upon us, he must, above all, be the chief executive in every sense of the word.
He must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office, all that are specified and some that are not. He must master complex problems as well as receive one page memorandums. He must originate action as well as study groups. He must reopen channels of communication between the world of thought and the seat of power. It was the boldest of job descriptions and it foreshadowed the style and substance of the leadership Senator Kennedy would offer when he became President Kennedy.
Fifty three weeks later to him, the life of the mind and the life of the nation were inextricably intertwined. And this connection between the vision of the artist, the poetry of history and the values of the country was a perennial one in his all too brief reign. Our national strength matters, Kennedy said at Amherst College and the tragic autumn of nineteen sixty three.
But the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.
The leadership of the spirit. What Franklin Roosevelt had called moral leadership was a Kennedy hallmark. He believed politics, a noble profession, and he worked within the tradition of the founders. Men who understood the politics and culture were of a piece. A republic was only as good as the sum of its parts, which is why public virtue mattered so enormously. Algernon Sydney, the 17th century English theorist and politician, once wrote Machiavelli. Discoursing on these matters finds virtue to be so essentially necessary to the establishment and preservation of liberty that he thinks it impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government or for a tyranny to be introduced if they be virtuous.
I think what he and Ted Sorensen, his principal aide, and the person who helped them the most with the speech, what they did first and foremost was they went back to see how others had done it in their inaugural addresses.
This is the author and professor of history at Harvard University, Frederick Longabaugh. They were especially, I think, interested in Lincoln's second. They were interested in Jefferson's first. They also paid attention to Roosevelt's first. And they wanted to see how should we do this? And I think they took lessons from those speeches. The Gettysburg Address is pretty interesting because I think what they both said was here is Lincoln in a mere two hundred and seventy five words saying so much.
And of course, they couldn't go that short, but they said, let's keep this brief. And in fact, I think the speech is only about 13 hundred and fifty words much shorter than most inaugural addresses.
The cultivation of civic virtue was a consuming, if little noted Kennedy, undertaking a practical, hard headed politician, he nevertheless heard the music of history. His appeals to endure against Soviet tyranny or to go to the moon or to join the Peace Corps were framed in terms of American greatness and of human progress, not in the narrow confines of this legislative session or that midterm election. This is why so many remember him so fondly, even if some might have disagreed with him in real time.
He spoke to our better angels and posterity rewards those who point ahead more than it does those who clench their fist. Such was the essence of his leadership. Kennedy was a young man with an abiding interest in history. The author of two books, Why England Slept About Appeasement and Profiles in Courage. He was a man of the urgent present. Intrigued by the past, these tributaries were evident in his inaugural address. Let's remember, he barely won, he was perceived by many people to be young, to be untested, to be maybe not quite ready for prime time, even after his victory.
I think there was a sense in the country that that was the case. And so I think he attached importance to the speech, partly for that reason. And he said to Sorensen, we need to alter the perception that people have of me so that I'm not the untested young politician who doesn't really have a full grasp on things. We're going to be confident here. We're going to emphasize that this is a new generation that's coming to power. But we're also going to make subtle references to the fact that I have a good deal of experience myself, including in international affairs, given my background.
He also understands that an inaugural address can define you as a president, maybe not for the whole presidency, but it can define you for a period of months, maybe even a year or two.
And so they spend a lot of time, especially in the week prior to the inaugural, going over this thing again and again and again with Ted Sorensen. Kennedy set to work in the weeks before the ceremonies. As the historian Arthur Sulzberger Jr. recalled morning after morning, puffing a small cigar, a yellow legal pad of paper on his knees, Kennedy walked away, scribbling a few lines, crossing out others and then putting the sheets of paper on his already overflowing desk.
Kennedy's hope was to strike a series of distinctive notes to express the spirit of the postwar generation in politics, to summon America to new exertions and new initiatives to summon the world to a new mood beyond the clichés of the Cold War. As time passed, the speech took form. Then one day, the president elect's stuff, the papers and his battered black briefcase and went north into the cold and snow. In the three days before the inaugural, Kennedy read it over tweaking here and there the day before the ceremonies, he carried around a large type reading copy in a loose leaf binder, Sorensen recalled, so that any spare moment could be used to familiarize himself with it.
There were a few crucial late edits. The columnist Walter Lippmann recommended that the Soviet Union be referred to as an adversary rather than as an enemy, and Slazenger noted adversary expressed Kennedy's intention more precisely, and he employed that for the rest of his life. Members of the House of Representatives were preceded by Kenneth R. Harding, deputy sergeant at arms in charge of the mace. This is an indication that it really was called. I remember that day vividly, I actually felt was very snowy was the worst snowstorm to hit New York in years.
This is the professor and historian Sean Wilentz.
It was just short of my 10th birthday. I remember the snow and I remember waving American flag and I remember feeling as if something truly momentous had happened. But I think I was aware of the idea of a new generation taking over, you know, that these were young Americans who are now it was their turn in effect.
The day itself was snowy, yet bright, the poet Robert Frost was there, he couldn't read the lines he'd compose because of the glare and so recited an older poem, The Gift outright. And then Kennedy took center stage. We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change, for I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now, for a man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe. The belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and better be proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit a slow undoing of those human rights which this nation has always been committed and which we are committed today at home and around the world.
It's not an ideological speech, there's nothing really partisan about it, he's not an ideological politician, and I think that's reflected in this speech. It is a summons to idealism.
There's a strong, idealistic center to the speech, no question. And in fact, I think that's where it derives some of its power and a whole generation of Americans. There's a strong, idealistic center to the speech.
At the same time, I think there is a realism here, especially with respect to foreign policy, and it is heavily foreign policy in its orientation to those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we have, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends united. There is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures divided. There is little we can do all. We dare not be a powerful challenge at all and split asunder to those new states. And we welcome to the ranks of the free.
We pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view, but we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom. And to remember that in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside. To those people in the Hudson villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves for whatever period is required, not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few rich. There are really only a handful of words in the entire speech that speak to domestic policy, and those were added really on the last day, it was it was right at the end that they said Kennedy said, I need to say something here about what's happening here at home. But that foreign policy emphasis, even though it's often perceived as a kind of Cold War call to arms, I think that's actually a misreading of the speech.
If you read it in its entirety, I think it's actually quite conciliatory tone. There's the famous passage. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
That both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us, led both sides for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations that both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors together. Let us explore the stars, conquer the desert, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the Earth the command of ISAF to undo the heavy burden and let the oppressed go free. So I think in a very powerful way, the speech combines this summons for a new generation of Americans to meet to conquer real problems, and yet also this realism that undergirds the speech as a whole.
In perhaps his most famous formulation, he called on Americans to serve the nation and one another. Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, a struggle against the common enemies of man, tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.
Can we forge against the enemy a grand and global alliance? North and south, east and west, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind. Will you join in that historic effort? In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation, the energy, the faith, the devastation which we bring to this endeavor will lead our country on all who serve it.
And the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so my fellow Americans ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, if not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. After the parade, Harry Truman called at the White House, the former president's first visit in eight years. Robert Frost came by two.
It was Arthur Slazenger said, Happy day. The editor of the liberal reporter magazine said that he was neither impressed nor stirred by the speech, but he was very much in the minority. The London Times thought it Lincolnesque in the New York Times, James Reston wrote, The reaction to President Kennedy's inaugural speech was even more remarkable than the speech itself. Everybody praised it. Kennedy's own view was that it wasn't as good as Jefferson's first. Ted Sorensen later wrote that the JFK effort didn't outrank Lincoln's second or FDR first, perhaps, but it remains the most celebrated and quoted inaugural with the possible exception of Lincoln's and FDR.
And the people liked it. Before the inauguration, nearly 70 percent approved of JFK after the inaugural by spring. His numbers hit 83 percent.
I think John Kennedy's inaugural inspired a whole generation of people to want to commit to public service and want to look for a way to make a difference. This is the long time political consultant and speechwriter Robert Shrum. I was a senior in high school watching it on television. It took your breath away. You could not believe that somebody could bring that much eloquence. And it wasn't just eloquence. It was also what he was saying. And to call on people to give of themselves.
So it lives on in the way that I think Roosevelt's first inaugural lives on or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and second inaugural live on. It's just a very powerful call, distillation of what America is all about. I have this theory that one of the measures of greatness in a president is not just what she does, not just what bills he signs, but whether or not he or she contribute to the enlargement of America's vision of itself so that Americans think about themselves differently and at deeper levels after they hear a president gives that kind of speech.
And I think that's one of the reasons also that John F. Kennedy, even though he was president for just over a thousand days, endures as a presence in our lives. A nation, Kennedy remarked elsewhere reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the minute honors the men it remembers at Amherst College in nineteen sixty three, he spoke of Robert Frost, who chaired the inaugural podium with him. Frost, Kennedy said, brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.
His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation, I have been he wrote one acquainted with the night and because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit. He gave his aged strength with which to overcome despair.
And the same could and should be said of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in his National Press Club speech in the first weeks of 1960, Kennedy had invoked Lincoln. The presidency, JFK said, must be endowed with extraordinary strength and vision. We must act in the image of Abraham Lincoln summoning his wartime cabinet to a meeting on the Emancipation Proclamation. That cabinet had been carefully chosen to please and reflect many elements in the country. But I have gathered you here together, Lincoln said.
To hear what I have written down, I do not wish or advice about the main matter that I have determined for myself. A bit later, Lincoln was ready to sign the proclamation, Kennedy recalled, but only after several hours of exhausting handshaking had left his arm weak. Lincoln remarked, If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act. My whole soul is in it. If my hand trembles when I sign this proclamation, all who examined the document hereafter will say he hesitated.
Kennedy told the rest of the story. But Lincoln's hand did not tremble. He did not hesitate. He did not equivocate. For he was the president of the United States.
Kennedy's voice never trembled either. That's one reason we hear it's still. I mean, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you with a good conscience, our only reward with history, the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to leave the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own.
Thank you for listening to season one of it was said a creation and production of C 13 originals, a division of Caden's 13 in association with the History Channel. Executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran, directed by Lloyd Lockridge, edited, produced, engineered and master by Chris Bazil with production support and research by Bill Schulz and Jon McDermitt and research assistants by Ian Mott. Creative Consultation by Eli Lehrer and Jesse Katz. Graphic Design, Marketing and Publicity by Josephine of Frances Kirk, Courtney and Hilary Show.
Our theme song is I Can Almost See You by Hammock in our closing credits song is Light by Michael Kiwanuka. We're miles apart, but say you're running for. Don will always. Sam.